This is the in-between season. May in northern Finland, when the snow has not yet finished melting. The thick, white crusts on lakes and rivers bruise violet in the sunlight. Out of sight, underneath, water flows, cannibalising winter’s skin. What looks solid isn’t. There’s not so many places you can walk.
Soile had told me May was a perfect time to come and write at Kilpisjarvi, quiet and peaceful. The biological station lies some 5 km along the lakeshore from the village proper, north along the road that leads to Norway and the Arctic Sea. Soile had kindly booked me into a room at the biological station for two weeks. She would stay a couple of nights herself to do her own work and see me settled in.
On the Internet, it looked bleak and windswept. I don’t like bleak and windswept, but I trusted Soile and I liked the idea of going somewhere a long way north. I come from the south: in Greenwich Meridian terms southeast, in Australian terms southwest, in Perth terms, due west, out near the rifle range that blocked us from walking through the scrub down to the ocean. White middle-class suburbs, lawns and rose bushes, laid out on sand-dunes in Noongah country. I don’t recall ever hearing guns being fired out there on the rifle range, although they must have fired them. Instead, the wind carried the sound of the speedway cars going around the track at Claremont Showgrounds. We never went to the speedway but I listened to it, lying in bed at night, like it was wild animals roaring in the distance. I come from the south but I come from nowhere, because where I come from isn’t where I come from. Willful amnesia is where I come from. My great grandparents and further back came from Scotland and England and probably other places north and European, but we never talked about that. We never talked about where we came from or how we came to be where we were. Who was there before, who was still there now. Aboriginal people we feared and pitied but mostly succeeded in erasing from our minds as our families had erased them from their lands, way back in the distant past, we told ourselves. It must have been more than a hundred years ago, as if that was geological, but again we didn’t really have to tell ourselves very often because the trick was always not to think about it in the first place. Like I never thought about how my father died. Not once. (He committed suicide.) That’s how I got attuned to how not thinking works. It’s effective, in its own way, but only to a point, because things endure. Atmospheres remember. Maybe it was to get away from all of this effort of not-thinking that I felt a pull towards the north. Or maybe my body has an ancient sense that north is home. Even for the north, this place, Kilpisjarvi, is northern—far above the Arctic Circle. Already in mid-May, the sun no longer sets and won’t again for the next three months. Not that it rises very much. It travels in its own in-between zone, as if riding on a very slow and gentle rollercoaster hitched to the horizon.
Soile is a friend; a sociologist, she works at the university in Rovaniemi, administrative capital of Finnish Lapland. One Saturday she drives me up to Kilpisjarvi in her old Peugeot, taking the roads that flit along the river sewing Finland to its Western neighbor and former imperial overlord, Sweden. Back and forth we cross over wide and empty bridges, past sleeping border stations. Sweden: neater. Finland: wild, a bit disheveled.
I’ve never before been to a place where it is normal for the ground to be blanketed in snow for months on end. Where I grew up, you could drive for day after day in any direction, any season and never come across so much as a teaspoonful of snow. With a friend, when I was a kid, I climbed Toolbrunup, at just above a thousand metres tall, one of Western Australia’s highest peaks. A squally cloud enveloped the summit, spitting out a few rare snowflakes that nestled, dying, on the outstretched palms of our hands. We couldn’t believe our luck. Here, in some Swedish village we are driving past, a woman shovels away piles of old snow heaped by her front door, making the most of the weekend sunshine to do some garden chores.
We stop at a Swedish petrol station selling reindeer skins. They also sell a small book with diagrams showing the unique pattern each Sami reindeer herding family has chosen or been granted to distinguish the ear tags of their reindeer, which otherwise wander freely across the Arctic countryside.
Almost all of Finland is a flat plain, studded with freshwater lakes. But as you drive into the far north-west, the land finally begins to swell. Under the pressure of the colder latitude, the pine trees shrink and thin, leaving the leafless birches etching veins of black across white hillsides. The snow deepens. The rounded hills rise higher, until you crest a range to reach a place where the still, white surface of a large lake rests like a glass eye in a socket, watched over by dramatic mountains. This is Kilpisjarvi.
Across the skin of writing falls the shadow of its many failures. In this, it is no different from any other task of making: cooking, hammering a nail. How many times has that nail bent, almost surely ruined, when I failed to strike it just how it needed to be struck?
In lieu of a more heroic writing project, I would be working at the biological station on a kind of compendium of ruins. Looking back at various unfinished and abandoned pieces of writing, I sift through their remains to salvage any scraps that might be dragged out and pieced together in a new form somewhere else. I also have a freshly abandoned work that so wants to be the beginning of something good but bobs uncomfortably on the same tide of shame that swamped the earlier manuscripts. In accepting that there is no hope in these projects being resolved in the short term, but having committed to this time of privileged solitude devoted entirely to the productivity of writing—in other words, at a null point—I am forced into the humility of accepting and nurturing whatever I can find, in between.
The biological station is owned and operated by the University of Helsinki. A flag flutters above the station displaying its emblem, which, as far as I can discern, is two lemmings hugging. In peak season, the station can comfortably accommodate 20 or 30 people, between the large main building and its surrounding cottages. In the main building, where I live, there is a cafeteria with full industrial kitchen, a library, seminar room, offices, a separate kitchen for the use of residents and a wing of laboratories packed with scientific instruments, equipment, and work tables. In the basement, because this is Finland, there is a sauna. There used to be another sauna in a log cabin down by the lake but sadly, this is closed. The spartan, spacious guest rooms line a wide corridor that runs perpendicular to the main spine of the building. Warm and buffed linoleum covers the floors so that one can enjoy padding along the corridors noiselessly in sock-clad feet.
The place is deserted. Usually there would be biological or other scientific researchers staying here, working on projects in the field or leading student residencies. The walls of the corridors are lined with posters detailing previous projects charting the effects of changing climate. Display cases on the way to the cafeteria house natural treasures found on field trips in the area. In a month the place will be full but for now, it’s just me. At 3 o’clock each weekday, the few staff members—the station manager and the cook, the cleaners—go home. On weekends and public holidays, they stay away entirely. I had anticipated peace and quiet, but this is more than I expected.
Soile bids goodbye on the third day to return to Rovaniemi; she asks whether I’m having second thoughts at being here alone. I can always bail out early, she says. Once a day, a bus stops up on the main road to begin the seven-hour journey south. And there are bicycles one can borrow to ride along the road to town.
Outside every window in the still-freezing air the snow plumps high like a doona, minding its distance from the human structures that destroy it with their warmth. There is not a window in the building the sun doesn’t shine through at one hour or another. At midnight, it illuminates the length of the residents’ corridor through the glass door at the end, as if lighting a dance show or some Chekhov afternoon behind an old proscenium.
I remember how my mother used to take me to the theatre when I was a teenager, just the two of us. The main local company in Perth was a reconstructed English provincial repertory that had washed up by the estuary of that most far-flung quasi-English province, led by a dashingly theatrical veteran of the scene named—as if a Noel Coward character—Edgar Metcalfe. In the grand tradition of actor managers, Mr. Metcalfe frequently shouldered the burden of the leading role as well as the director’s mantle: Shakespeare, Ibsen, whatever it might be. Meanwhile, in the first year of high school, I had my own theatrical debut when chosen, for reasons never understood, to play the eponymous butler Crichton in the play, The Admirable Crichton. I was good at following instructions, maybe that was it. My characterisation entirely consisted of a gesture I was instructed, by Mr. Parkinson, the English teacher, to perform whenever possible: clasping my hands together in front of my stomach and rubbing them back and forth against each other. Horizontally: that was important. This gesture, a sign of deference befitting my servile station, would become ironic in Acts Two and Three when, along with my master’s family, I was shipwrecked on a desert island and my versatile talents saw me emerge as the natural leader of the group, the master to my masters. The hand gesture transformed into a sign of unflappable strength during my ascendancy. Although I remember no details of the plot, Wikipedia maintains that in Act Three, the daughter of my erstwhile lord and master fell in love with me and I would have married said beautiful Lady Mary had I not chosen duty over love and responded gallantly to a rescue signal that saw us all returned to England and our previous class positions. (Clasps hands together in front of stomach with noble stoicism…) It felt like the play was hundreds (if not thousands) of years old ,but it turns out to have been written in 1902 by J M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame.I cannot recall whether Lady Mary was played by a girl or boy; whether it was a co-production with our sister school or an all-male cast half in drag. Why does it matter? What does matter in this story? The light along the corridor, the hands, my mother, the theatre, Perth in the 1970s, home, comfort, being on a stage, distant in my head, going through the motions, dressed up, performing awkwardly.
In Kilpisjarvi, almost everything is closed. The caravan park, tourist shop, lakeside kiosk, boat cruise jetty. Most of the restaurants are shuttered, save the bland-looking cafe upstairs by the petrol station and the old place with the roof painted bright red to attract attention from the highway. In the latter, although its black gravel car park currently houses, almost exclusively, giant piles of snow, you can find a no-nonsense all-you-can-eat buffet lunch that breaks out towards splendour in the sweets department. The general store plies a year-round trade, underwritten by cashed-up Norwegians who cruise across the border to stock up with ten-kilogram slabs of frozen reindeer meat for a fraction of the price they’d pay at home.
The thaw and melt are late this year; the in-between time is extended. Like everywhere, the weather can no longer be relied on. There’s no clear ground yet for summer hikers. The lake is not yet free of ice for boating. On the other hand, the ice fishing season has come and gone; the ice is thin and dangerous. The only skiers left are the Finnish national cross-country ski team on a preseason training camp. Even they are leaving as we arrive, completing their last routines, which consist of strange lunging and leaping actions sans skis or snow across an empty car park. As they depart, the only hotel in town shuts its doors for annual holiday.
One day, after I have been living there alone for a week, a stranger comes. I’m not sure when I first become aware of her arrival. The station manager advised that a woman would be turning up and staying for some time. I didn’t know why she was coming to the station or what she would be doing there. By this time, I have grown accustomed to my solitude. On weekdays, the cafeteria will open just for me, if I have booked in for a meal. I turn up at the appointed hour. A generous one-person version of the standard breakfast or lunch buffet is laid out in gleaming stainless steel dishes along a counter, with fruit, bread, and various condiments on another bench nearby. I fill a tray with food, trying not to pile my plate too high to compensate for being the only diner. Then I sit, book open, at one of the many empty tables I can choose from, looking out at the snow and the bare branches of the birches poking through where, in several places, empty nests can be seen awaiting the activities of summer. As the days go on, I notice more and more birds fluttering about, increasingly busy and excited. Occasionally the maintenance man, the station manager, and other staff will be sitting at a table chatting when I arrive. They always hastily get up and leave, carrying their dishes with them, as if there is some protocol against sharing the lunchroom with outsiders. I try to make eye contact with the cook to say kiitos (thank you—my only word in Finnish applicable outside a sauna), but she invariably positions herself in a small office just out of view as I arrive. Until the stranger comes, these mealtime encounters, or missed encounters, are the only fixed points in what otherwise stretches as one endless day, a subtly transforming duration in which the illusion of night can only be artificially arranged. As if self-parenting, one has to consciously decide it is time to close the curtains, pull the blinds down and go to bed, covering the eyes if possible with airline-issued eyeshades so that, with the eyelids also closed, conditions will finally approximate darkness.
I first run into the stranger in the residents’ kitchen. After Soile left, this became my private evening domain. Each night, I worked through another segment of a menu improvised from the small range of groceries available at the store, listening to mildly interesting podcasts while I cooked. One night, she is there on a lounge chair when I arrive. She is eating fruit and yoghurt from a bowl while watching ice hockey on TV. Finland versus Russia, its arch-rival (another former imperial overlord). Small and self-contained, the woman looks to be in her late 50s, not much older than me. We exchange a single, universal word—hello—then she turns back to the TV. As I start to cook, the sound of the ice-hockey commentators fills the room. The players slide back and forth across the screen in their heavily padded costumes, whacking each other violently. When the game finishes, she turns the television off with the remote, stands up, nods at me politely, leaves the room, and vanishes until the following evening.
In my room at the biological station, where I spend most hours of the day, I don’t feel cooped up. I have a bathroom and a single bed on which I lay down with my eyeshades in place at the appropriate time each night. That is when the silence is at its most textured, inviting in the sound of dreams. At least once a day, I venture out for a walk or a bike ride in the direction either of the town; the lake or the closed-up caravan park with its dormant restaurant; gift shop and kiosk overlooking the lake, where you must be able to buy ice-creams in the summer. I talk to nobody; I scarcely see anyone except the shadows driving cars and semi-trailers along the American-style highway complete with its line of telephone poles and painted row of dashes converging in the distance. I take photographs of ice and snow in endless configurations, never tiring of their novel superfluity.
At the desk in my room I write, and I find it possible to write there in the biological station, in the soothing silence. I work seriously in the ruins. Once a day, I stop writing for a while and sit in the chair, cocooned in the solitude, not imagining I am far away but that I am close and present. Close to words but temporarily unwritten.
Write about what you desire, advises the writer Wayne Koestenbaum, or perhaps he advises: write from your desire. As if either would be a straightforward injunction. Are what we desire and the way that we desire it our deepest, most humiliating secrets? (Koestenbaum would say, good, write about it all the more). And therefore, in the gap between what we want and what it is acceptable for us to want, brews the frustrations that lead to rage that turns outward into hatred that begets violence and cruelty and all the ways we become capable of causing suffering, and thus in a single sentence I have attempted virtually a universal theory of human everything, which is always a tendency I have had a weakness for.
The biological station is tightly sealed and insulated, its low body anchored to the ground so that no matter how extreme the weather outside, it remains immoveable. All the doors are airlocked. Do I feel at home? I certainly feel safe and secure, once I became accustomed to the building, its eerie scale and emptiness. Maintained at such a level of cleanliness that no unintended trace of previous inhabitants can be found, it is not a place you’d find idle scratchmarks on the desks in the seminar room or gobs of chewing gum underneath. A ball of fluff on the floor in the corner of a room would be unimaginable. Being sealed, it is also silent. It is so well engineered that the systems of airflow, heating and cooling, are virtually undetectable, as if the building itself is simply warm-blooded. Womb-like: the mothership.
“Life begins well, it begins enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house,” says French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in his book, The Poetics of Space. How lucky we are, those of us for which this is true, who are not born homeless, seeking refuge, or within domestic violence. For Bachelard, the house is the space that shelters daydreams. It is the maternal space of intimacy, where solitude can roam free in attics, nooks and cellars. Or, as in a brick bungalow in Perth, Australia, the concrete front porch, sun-warmed back steps. “In the daydream itself, the recollection of moments of confined, simple, shut-in space are experiences of heartwarming space, of a space that does not seek to become extended, but would like above all to be possessed,” says Bachelard. I have come to the biological station to learn again to daydream. I want to possess that space of solitude where daydreams can make themselves at home; I want to find a new place from which to write.
In memory we cannot know ourselves in time, says Bachelard. We can only know ourselves in a sequence of different spaces, tableaux in which different characters, human and nonhuman, appear. When we set out ‘in search of things past’, we actually want ‘time to “suspend” its flight,’ he says. ‘In its countless alveoli, space contains compressed time. This is what space is for.’ In my first childhood home, the corridor of bedrooms ran perpendicular to the main spine of the house. There, off that corridor, was my bedroom and next to it, my mother’s bedroom, where she slept alone. A few steps away at the far end of the corridor stood the door into the lounge room. This was far enough away to play, in the space between, an entire game of football with a balloon left over from a party. I would do so on a rainy afternoon, daydreaming in slow motion, alone, as if filling in time until my father—the first stranger—might arrive.
What I looked forward to most when I was a kid was getting away. Leaving home so as to be able to return. The shortest regular trip we made as a family was to my Gran’s house, each Sunday evening. The four of us are boxed into the little Mazda, my mother driving, my brother, sister, and myself. It was before seat belts were compulsory. The limbs of children, especially mine, much smaller than my siblings’ six and seven years older, were free to loll in all directions. The mood in the car, in memory, is always peaceful as we travel among the stars and sand dunes that together still won out in those days over houses and streetlights on the winding beachside road between Mt. Claremont and Scarborough. At Gran’s, more comfort: lemon steamed pudding and cousin games, the licence to watch commercial channels before the man said goodnight girls and boys. Just don’t talk politics or religion; Uncle Noel is to the right of Genghis Khan.
For days the only time I ever see the stranger is each evening in the shared kitchen where she watches television for an hour or so—sport or a nature documentary—and eats something minimal from the fridge. Never walking in the corridors or at the cafeteria. What does she do all day? Is she a nun? Perhaps a Buddhist nun? A very down-to-earth Finnish ice-hockey-loving Buddhist nun?
Like the biological station itself she seems sealed and self-contained, comfortable in being alone. Each time I go into the kitchen to make a meal I hope she won’t be there. The way she sits there, absorbed in the sounds and images of the television, ignoring me.
If not a nun, what might her day job be? Retired? She doesn’t look quite old enough. So alone! Gay or straight? Most likely straight, but what am I, a psychic? Does she wonder what I’m doing here? What has the manager told her? A writer from Australia…? What even would that mean?
The house of Bachelard’s dreams is vertical: it should have either three or four stories, he insists, including a cellar, an attic, and multiple staircases in-between. Our house, like most of those I knew in Perth, comprised one floor only. All of the other floors were cut off—existing only in the imagination of the child who searched for them. This typified our lot as settler descendants in Perth: to be cut off, dwelling somewhere only the most basic of structures had been put in place. Yes, there were houses, but houses with phantom limbs that existed only in the books we read. How I longed for a staircase! As an adult, as soon as I could afford to renovate a house that’s what I wanted. A staircase. It didn’t matter where it led to, so long as there was a room upstairs. Our childhood house in Perth, like the biological station in Kilpisjarvi, existed on the horizontal plane. We were told our house had previously been a duplex or else had been intended to be a duplex. That’s why it had two front doors next to each other on the front porch. Supposedly. The word duplex hovered mysteriously. What was a duplex? Two half-houses stuck together sideways, like conjoined twins.
Our relationship— the stranger’s and mine—only progresses in so far as we grow accustomed to each other. I become more comfortable ignoring her as I chop and fry my vegetables, boil my pasta, sit at the table with my glass of wine and book. I don’t offer to share and neither does she. Was there a moment—an exchange of gestures—early on, in which the subject of sharing food and drink was raised and a protocol established in the negative? Actually, I think not. It was precisely in the lack of gesture—when I opened and poured the wine, she didn’t register the movement or the sound—that our way of being together became declared. It seems obvious she isn’t secretly hoping I will pour her a glass and invite her to the table. Or perhaps she is shy, as I am. We are conjoined twins, a duplex; an invisible wall of language and experience between us.
Neither of us wants to make the first move towards a greater intimacy of companionship. That reticence, in common, becomes a bond. Whereas in most situations, our social diffidence—the feeling that our emotional lives are somehow ziplocked and inaccessible even to our own perception—might be uncomfortable, here in the biological station it feels like an acceptable, even estimable, quality.
Some time goes on like this. A few days, a week, it’s hard to tell. Outside my bedroom window hangs a mercury thermometer, one way to measure the difference between the days. Likewise, the changing cloudscape. I can’t get over the uncanny feeling of being on top of the world, not only because of the latitude, but because of the peculiar topography of Kilpisjarvi, where a sliver of Finnish territory extends a few hundred metres north of the biological station, touching Sweden and Norway both at once. The only road into Kilpisjarvi rises up and up from the body of Finland proper and then, as it widens to become an immaculately engineered Norwegian highway, drops down again on the other side in a series of sweeping curves cutting deep into pine clad valleys as it approaches the great fjord of Lyngen. It is as if each country could only be in charge of its own distinctive and contrary mode of landscape, and thus the border drawn—Finland flat and lake-strewn, Norway carved in giant fingers, ocean-drowned. And Kilpisjarvi, this remote place where the two are stitched together, the occasion celebrated with a magnificent lake large enough for a ferry to take passengers between one country and another. If and when the ice has melted. Above the lake, the Sami holy mountain they call Saana.
Are we all confined each to our own biological station? Often it feels as if the patterns of movement within my body—the corridors of thought, repetitive paths of muffled feeling—are deeply earthed in a time before I can remember. As if the architecture of my emotional life has been—always already—laid out, and its systems whir away silently in the background, constantly recycling their limited repertoire of images. I am now in middle age, according to objective human measures of mortality, but not yet reconciled to the bewildering events of infancy, the aftermath of being born.
The biological station! It is body as well as home—bio as well as logical. How long can we rest suspended in the in-between time, when winter has left already and summer has not yet come? A residency is always a suspension and a suspension is a pause, held fragile in its instability and the rituals of care that make it possible. What happened those two weeks? I wrote, I ate, I walked. I did such normal things.
A second woman arrives, and is welcomed by a third who has arranged to meet her at the biological station. The third woman is the well-known Finnish artist and scholar, Leena Valkeapää, whom Soile knows—the latter had emailed to warn me of this impending swell of sociality. Leena is married to a Sami reindeer herder and lives thirty kilometres south in a house some distance off the main road on another lake. She is worried about how she will get home because the ice on her lake is breaking up and her snowmobile could fall through if she isn’t skilful enough in how she speeds across the cracks and holes. In the summer they travel by boat, in winter by snowmobile. In the in-between time it is hard to get anywhere, although a walking path winds the long way through the forest. The other woman, who Leena has come to welcome, has driven down from Tromso, in the far north of Norway. She has retired from a long career as a laboratory technician working in IVF and other fields to become a bio-artist. She is here to collect biological samples in the forest (if the snow clears) that she will later smear across glass plates and magnify into large, two-dimensional images. The two women inspect the deserted biological laboratories. The Norwegian bio-artist feels totally at home, like a chef inspecting an industrial kitchen, assessing the familiar tools she’ll probably be using: microscopes with cameras; glass containers and so on. Leena, who has acted so warmly, briefly, as our host, now departs to try to get home, one way or another, before it gets too late. The Norwegian and I thank her and say goodbye.
The Norwegian speaks excellent English. Her favourite English word is super-cool, and she herself is super-friendly. One of her current art projects is a site-specific community kitchen that pops up in abandoned buildings during festivals, inviting people to help cook and share free dinners from donated food that would otherwise be wasted. Within a few hours at the biological station, she has discovered much more about the mystery woman than I ever would have.
She chuckles to me in the kitchen later when we are alone: “Hehe. She is so Finnish! They are all like that. They don’t talk.”
“Do you know what she is doing here?” I ask.
Oh. Ice-fishing? I thought the season was over. The Norwegian woman shrugs.
That’s why I never saw the woman during the day. She woke up early to go ice-fishing.
“She comes here for a week, once a year, on holiday from the south, because it is cheap and quiet. And she loves ice-fishing.”
It’s a wonder I have never noticed the fisherwoman out there on the lake.
Next time I see the icefisher in the kitchen, I say, “So, you are fishing?”
She grins broadly: “Yes.”
“You fish in the ice?” I say.
“Yes.” She smiles again.
This is as far as our conversation goes, but it feels like we have been chatting and laughing together all afternoon and when we separate, we each trail a warm glow of social interaction back along the corridor in our woollen socks. Later, I tell the Norwegian woman about the conversation. She has come in from the back porch where she likes to chain smoke cigarettes in a puffer jacket. She judges this development super-cool.
The in-between time: Leena, the Finnish artist with the reindeer herding family, said this was the season she loved best. I was surprised. I had thought everyone would be in a hurry for the summer to arrive: the time for boating, ice-creams, sprouting leaves and nesting birds, berries and flowers on the ground. All of the nostalgic comforts. But she preferred it now, in the liminal; she preferred the patches. In winter, the landscape is a plane of white and in summer, unremitting greens. In between, with the snow half-melted, the ice half thawed, the field of vision makes complex patterns with scars and blotches, nudges of rock, floating jigsaws.
When the day comes I am due to leave the biological station, the sun burns in an unusually cloudless sky. I determine to make the most of it. Before breakfast, I take off towards the lake to try out—for the first time—the snowshoes the manager invited me to borrow. Sitting on the wooden jetty that leads out from the disused sauna to the icehole that seasoned Finnish sauna enthusiasts would plunge into in between their stints of sweating, I grapple with the snowshoes in the cold, eventually succeeding in clipping them into place. In slow motion, larger-than-life awkwardness, I stump along the lakeside across the freshly refrozen snow. And there I see her, for the first time, fishing. No, not quite—I had seen her from above, near the front entrance to the biological station, when I first stepped out that morning and was standing by the flagpole underneath the entwined lemmings. I had looked down upon the lake and seen a tiny black figure sitting very still, where she might have been sitting every previous day if I had ever thought to look. I know immediately who it is on the ice, and that I must take the snowshoes down beside the lake and approach her.
She is sitting on a stool about thirty metres from the lakeshore, fishing in a hole evidently cut out with the ice drill lying nearby. This fishing is in fact the sort of thing a Buddhist nun might do, so meditative and quiet. But I’m sure our Norwegian friend would have discovered if the icefisher were any kind of cleric. Gingerly ,I take a few steps out onto the lake toward her, wary of the fragility of its icy crust. She turns to me and waves. I wave back. I stop approaching. It doesn’t seem right to go too close to her. I might fall through the ice and/or I might spoil her solitude, her reverie of communication with the fish circling in the depths below. Obviously she likes to sit there on her stool, fishing through the hole in the ice, for hours on end. Rugged up in her down coat she is perfectly comfortable. I don’t know and will never know any of the story of her life outside this place, what home she is away from, whether she is alone there too or surrounded by people and animals awaiting her return. For some time I stand there, looking around at the view of the mountains from this perspective, seeing how the lake’s stillness and flatness, its crustiness as if it were a salt pan glistening in the sun, extends in every direction until its airbrushed meshing with the folds of snow and rock around its hem.
Afterwards, I decide to climb a little of the mountain, Saana. The refrozen snow is firm to walk on in the snowshoes. I find the path behind the deserted caravan park that leads up to the ridge. I go further than I intend. The day is so clear and dry; it is now or never. High up, I can see vistas opening up to the north and west, dramatic Norwegian peaks. Patterns, patches, just as the Finnish artist had described. A snaking duckboard wends its way up the steep, rocky ridge where the snow is thinner. I take off my snowshoes and leave them by the path for my return. Up ahead, I can see a single hiker disappearing over the rise onto the long plateau near the summit. I get as far as a vantage point high above the lake from where I can look down at the biological station. I try to find the window of my room. Out on the lake, about thirty metres from the edge, there is a small black speck like a piece of dirt on the surface of some eyeglasses. It is her. The icefisher. All these hours later she is still out there, fishing patiently. From this distance, she could not appear smaller and yet I feel an uncanny sense of connection with her. We are strangers, each sitting separate and far apart, but we know each other. We are at home in being side-by-side.
When I get back for lunch and am packing up my stuff, she is in the hallway with an old canvas rucksack.
“I have my frozen fish in here,” she says. “I’m going home today.”
“Me too! On the bus?”
“Yes, on the bus,” she says. We laugh at the coincidence.
‘How many fish do you have to take home?’ I ask.
“Ten,” she says. I am impressed but she says ten is disappointing. Usually she would have more but because this year the snow is late in melting she hasn’t been able to walk up to the other lake behind the mountain where the fishing’s better. “Still, ten is good,” I say.
We walk up to the bus stop alongside each other. We stop and wait for the bus to come. I stand up my suitcase and she leans her rucksack, with the fish inside, against the wooden bus shelter.
“Can I take your photograph?” I ask. No. She shakes her head.
Acknowledgments: This essay was made possible thanks to an invitation to visit Finland from Soile Veijola, Professor of Cultural Studies of Tourism in the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Lapland, and was written with the support of RMIT University’s School of Media and Communication and non/fictionLab.
by David Carlin
Runner Up, Creative Nonfiction Prize